We’ve all heard the joke about the two Jews who built three synagogues. One for each of them and the third which neither would deign to enter. For the past decade or so I have belonged to two synagogues — one Reform, one Conservative. The experience has led me to consider each movement’s philosophies and interpretations of Torah. Reflecting upon these different perspectives has forced me to dig deeper and find meaning sometimes within one movement sometimes within the other. And sometimes, as I will explore with you this afternoon, I have found meaning at the crossroads where both movements struggle with a traditional text.
Writing this sermon has allowed me to explore a marked difference in the way the Reform Movement’s Gates of Prayer and the Conservative prayer book translate verses in the middle section of the Amidah that focuses on God’s miraculous powers in nature as well as the miracle of resurrection in the future.
What initially piqued my curiosity was a sentence in the section titled the G’vurot: “Who is Like you Master of Might?” we read. “Who is your equal O Lord of Life and Death, Source of Salvation: Blessed is the Lord the Source of Life.” This last phrase, Source of Life, appears in the Reform movement’s Gates of Prayer as M’chaiyay HaKol.
The Conservative prayerbook uses the traditional Hebrew phrase, “M’chaiyay HaMayteem” which literally means, “reviver of the dead.” But when they translated “M’chaiyay HaMayteem” into English, the editors also belied their discomfort with the whole idea of God bringing the dead back to life. They took liberties with the literal translation as well: “Blessed are you O Lord who brings us into life everlasting” reads one. “Blessed are you O Lord in giving life to the dead. Praised are You, Lord, Master of life and death,” reads another.
Hey wait a minute, I thought when I first realized the dichotomy in translations. M’chaiyay HaMayteem literally means: Reviver of the Dead, And doesn’t that mean resurrection? Jews don’t believe in resurrection, or so I thought. There is a midrash on the Akeidah, the binding of Isaac that suggests that Isaac did indeed die and that the angels’ tears fell on his lifeless body and brought him back to life.
Preparing for this sermon led me to read some of the texts in which rabbis and other sages struggled with and weighed in on the concepts of resurrection, reincarnation and even soul transference. While these ideas and concepts are neither alien to nor at odds with Judaism, they have not necessarily been the focus of modern Jewish philosophy or liturgy.
The more I thought about it I realized that although the editors of the Gates of Prayer skated around the issue of resurrection by blessing God as the Source of life, something God certainly is, there are many ways of living on after literal death, of being brought into life everlasting as suggested by our siddur’s text. Judaism teaches us to live on in the good deeds we perform, in the lessons we teach, in the loving and wonderful memories we leave behind in the hearts of friends and family.
In fact, the text of the Eilu D’varim, the obligations without measure, could be understood to be the road map towards life everlasting. Performing these obligations — among them visiting the sick; celebrating with the bride and groom; making peace where there is strife; attending the house of study daily — ensures that we are remembered long after our time on earth has passed.
I do not know where my Grandpa Popo’s soul now resides, but here on earth he lives on in the Shechechianu. He was not a particularly observant Jew. Family lore has it that when he landed at Ellis Island his brother Izzy greeted him, handed him a ham sandwich and said, Ess, eat, you’re in America now. I never saw him eat a ham sandwich but I did hear him recite the Shechechianu at every opportunity: when we saw him after a long absence; at the Seder table, at Thanksgiving. It is a tradition I continued and so now do my children.
Many summers ago I gave them change for the ice cream truck that came clanging up the street. When they came through the door Elliot told me that he and Emma had said the Shechechianu. over their first ice cream of the summer. My Grandpa Popo, a man whom they never knew, lives on in a prayer.
I did not grow up in a home where my mother blessed the candles with any regularity. Even so I remember the times she observed the mitzvah. When I think of her blessing the candles I remember her hands, the shape of her nails, her voice. When my daughter Emma was little we began lighting candles together and I realized that once I’ve been returned to dust, as long as Emma continues to bless Shabbos candles, I will also be returned to her each week. She will hear my voice; she will see me before her and I will come alive again.
Week after week, Shabbos afer Shabbos, I have come to this phrase MaChaye HaMetim, Reviver of the Dead only to be confronted by each movement’s struggle with the idea of God bringing the dead back to life. The Shacharit (morning) prayers, thank God for bringing us back to life after the mini-death of sleep and the soul-wandering of dreams.
Each Shabbat as I pray the Amidah, I realize the many ways that we human beings endure a metaphorical death and are returned to life. We, or our loved ones, suffer cataclysmic accidents and illness and — MiChaiyay HaMetim — God brings us back from the brink of death and we are returned to life. We suffer the death of loved ones, the loss of jobs and security, yet somehow we go on living. Friendships die and we mourn this loss. And then we tuck our sorrow away and forge new friendships, coming back into life and trust.
Rabbinic tradition teaches us that causing insult or hurt with our words is akin to murder because it causes our victim’s face to whiten and drain of blood in momentary mortification. We all know that sticks and stones are child’s play in comparison to the well-honed knife of criticism. Yet over time even the sting of cruel words loses its power and we move on.
When my son went off to college four years ago, I felt as if a huge piece of me had died. What would I do with the part of me that had mothered him for 18 years? The irony in that symbolic number 18 didn’t escape me. In those first raw weeks after his departure I would sometimes sleep in his bed. Like a grieving widow I strove to resurrect his presence, and my identity as his mother, if only from his scent left behind amidst the tangle of bedcovers.
I was snapped to attention by three chance encounters with mothers whose children had died — of cancer, in a freak hot tub incident, in a car crash. I watched one mother sit during Kol Nidre services, a photograph of her deceased son on the chair beside her. A part of these mothers had surely perished with their children, but they had somehow found a way to rejoin the living, never again as before surely, but there they were. I had to move on as well and return to life in the wake of our son’s departure. I righted myself and learned how to mother from a distance, sobered and grateful that that was all I had to learn to do.
Our daughter Emma left for college last year, leaving behind a a few scattered CD’s, a hair brush and some partnerless socks. She also left behind her parents who are faced with the challenge of negotiating this newly empty nest. It hasn’t been as hard as I htought. I returned just last week from visiting Emma for Parents Weekend. We were were both keenly aware of the irrevocable turn our relationship has taken now that she is away at college. I miss the daily delight of her energy and humor; she now misses her mother’s steady presence. But within our realization that one season has folded close forever, a new one sweeter, more intense, and poignant emerged. We stayed up until two talking. She finished all her work early in order to be with me the entire weekend.
Seeking to link these thoughts of life and death and death and life with our High Holiday liturgy I thought of the Untana Tokef. The Untana Tokef , written in the 11th century, is as filled with awe and dread as are these ten days of repentance. The concepts on which it is based come from Jewish apocalyptic literature and parallel Christian writings based on similar sources, the most famous of which is the Dies Irae (the days of wrath) found in the requiem mass which offers vivid description of the day of judgment for all humankind. But the subject of the Unetana Tokef is not Christianity’s final judgment but Judaism’s much more immediate yearly day of judgment of these days of awe.
“On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed: Who shall live and who shall die.” I can’t help but shiver from the chilling and inescapable directness of these words. Although we are counseled that tzedekah, prayer and repentance will temper God’s decree, the threat of that decree hangs there all the same — a sword held above my head bowed in prayer.
It is problematic liturgy and I know of more than a few rabbis who refuse to incorporate the prayer in their High Holiday services. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, there was much debate about reciting the Una Tana Tokef. So many had died by fire, by stoning and by suffocation. The floods caused by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita may have receded, but the memories of those who so recently died by water will remain forever. It is distressing at worst and uncomfortable at best to imagine God pointing His children to the right and to the left, to life or to death.
I read these words and shudder. How much tzezdekah (charity)? How much prayer and repentance will temper God’s decree? I want to hide. Not me, not my loved ones. Go away, God, don’t look at me! More than any ten days of our year we are supposed to draw closer to God yet how to we do this in the shadow of the Una Tana Tokef?
In an attempt to make peace with these verses, I did a chutzpadik thing: I inverted that dreaded line. On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed: who shall die and who shall live. And in this reversal, the possibilities for living grew. There is the hope that whatever we may suffer in the coming year, God can return us to life. Bodies can be mended; fences too. Grief will loosen its suffocating hold on us and we will breath fully once again. Loved ones will be buried and though we feel ourselves drowning in our tears, in the course of saying the Kaddish we return to life and hopefully to a relationship with God.
Will our spiritual life die or live this year? This is the time of year when Jews return to temples and synagogues in droves. Pews are full, parking lots are overflowing. In kindergarten we planted lima beans, hard as marbles, in plastic cups filled with water-soaked cotton. Like those little lima beans plants , our spiritual core may just be unfurling, tender and green. Will we water it with more than a few days’ attendeance at these crowded services? Or will that fresh green curl of potential contact with our Jewish community wither and die? On Rosh Hashanah it will be written and on Yom Kippur it will be sealed whose spirit might be sparked to return once again to worship, whose to volunteer, whose to study.
Repentance and forgiveness are the inescapable duties of these Days of Awe. Withholding forgiveness can kill a relationship as will refusing responsibility for one’s own hurtful actions. Repentance is sometimes a piece of cake, honey or otherwise, in comparison to mustering forgiveness for those who have wounded us deeply. How can we forgive those who cannot, or will not, summon the consciousness to see the hurt they have caused! There is a small dying of the spirit when one holds onto anger and those who understand the mind-body connection know that unresolved anger ultimately takes a physical toll. Would that I could give you the perscription for making peace with those whose actions cut deeply.
I can only offer the concept of balancing forgiveness with a knowing awareness. Forgiveness does not mean handing someone carte blanche to hurt us again. Nor does being aware of a loved one’s shortcomings mean to live constantly on the offensive like the actor in the Eveready commercial, daring viewers to knock the battery off his shoulder.
We can open our hearts to forgiveness and thus siphon destructive anger from our own spirits, yet remain conscious to the reality that people, even our loved ones, don’t necessarily change. We can strive to scrape away at the hard hull of resentment, for our own good, yet be prepared to hold our ground when those closest to us pull their numbers once again. Each day we have the opportunty to stand at this crossroad of forgiveness and awareness and thus stay most alive in our relationships.
We Jews live not only in linear time but in circular time as well. The High Holiday prayerbook is called a machzor for a reason — it is rooted in the concept of return. Each year, no matter how far we might have wandered — from our Jewish community, from our sense of purpose, from the ethics we are commanded to follow — we return. We return because we want to be blessed with life. We return because we want to pray for life. We return because we have known death this year and as Jews, we navigate by the star that is God who not only gave us life and who commands us to choose life.